A recent front-page story in the Washington Post declares: “Iran is quietly seeking to expand its ties with Latin America.” Actually, the Iranians have been expanding their Latin American ties for several years now, and they haven’t been particularly quiet about it.
But President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s latest regional tour — which has seen him visit Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Ecuador — comes at a moment when Iran is (1) suffering from high unemployment and rampant inflation, (2) under increasing strain from Western financial sanctions, (3) experiencing a fierce power struggle between Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and (4) facing a growing international backlash over its nuclear program and aggressive behavior. Last week, two RAND analysts — Alireza Nader and James Dobbins — wrote: “The Iranian regime is more vulnerable than at any time in its 32-year history.”
In other words, now is the perfect time for Ahmadinejad & Co. to strengthen their partnership with oil-rich Venezuela, which is fast becoming one of Iran’s most important economic lifelines. Ahmadinejad arrived in the South American country on January 8 and met with Hugo Chávez a day later, before traveling to Managua for the inauguration of Daniel Ortega, the pro-Chávez, pro-Iran Sandinista leader who won an illegitimate reelection on November 6. (It was illegitimate because the Nicaraguan constitution explicitly bars incumbent presidents from seeking reelection, and also prohibits anyone from serving more than two presidential terms overall. Ortega’s first term came in the 1980s, and his second term began in January 2007.)
Many commentators have downplayed the significance of the Tehran-Caracas alliance, casting doubt on its strategic importance and criticizing those who take the threat seriously. But the facts are impossible to deny.
For example: In June 2008, the Treasury Department accused the Chávez government of “employing and providing safe harbor to Hezbollah facilitators and fundraisers.” A few months later, Treasury sanctioned an Iranian bank and its Venezuelan subsidiary for their financial ties to the Iranian armed forces. In May 2009, we learned (via the Associated Press) that Israeli intelligence believes Venezuela could be giving Iran uranium. In September of that year, Chávez announced that Venezuela would begin selling Iran 20,000 barrels of gasoline every day. In May 2011, a German newspaper reported that Iran was building rocket bases in Venezuela. That same month, Treasury sanctioned Venezuela’s state-run oil company, PDVSA, for doing business with Iran.
Elsewhere in Latin America, as the Post noted in its recent story, Ahmadinejad has established new Iranian missions in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Uruguay, while also enlarging existing Iranian embassies in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, and Mexico. Even more disturbing: Tehran has been sending officers from its paramilitary Quds Force. The Post reported:
Former U.S. intelligence officials say the presence of Quds Force officers and other military personnel in diplomatic missions enhances Iran’s ability to carry out covert activities, sometimes in conjunction with members of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group that operates extensive networks in Latin America and maintains ties with drug cartels. … U.S. officials say the Quds Force was behind the alleged plot to hire Mexican drug gangs to assassinate a Saudi diplomat in Washington.
News of the assassination plot, which first broke in October, was a rude wake-up call about the danger posed by Iran’s growing hemispheric presence. The Iranians have a history of carrying out deadly terrorist massacres in Latin America — most notably, the 1992 and 1994 Buenos Aires bombings — and former Peruvian military chief of staff Gen. Francisco Contreras has said that Iranian organizations are now aiding other terror groups in South America. By expanding its terrorist presence in the Western Hemisphere, Iran is laying the groundwork for future attacks on U.S. and Israeli interests.
Given the regime’s bloodstained history, it would be foolish to dismiss this threat as “exaggerated.” According to Tehran-based Press TV, an Iranian state-run media outlet:
The promotion of all-out cooperation with Latin American countries is among the top priorities of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy.
Beyond its outreach to Venezuela and other ALBA members, Iran has also dramatically boosted its trade relations with Argentina and Brazil. Indeed, the Argentine government is apparently so desperate for greater economic cooperation with Iran that it has secretly offered to suspend investigations of the Buenos Aires bombings in return for closer bilateral trade ties.
Brazil is a more complicated story. Under Lula da Silva, who served as Brazilian president from January 2003 to January 2011, the South American giant warmed to Iran and (along with Turkey) helped broker a controversial nuclear-fuel agreement that undermined U.S. diplomatic efforts at the United Nations. Last August, Brazilian Deputy Foreign Minister Maria Edileuza Fontenele described Iran as one of her country’s “most important partners.” Lately however, Lula’s successor President Dilma Rousseff has adopted a cooler, more cautious approach to the Iranians. It is telling that Ahmadinejad’s Latin American itinerary did not include a stop in Brasília.
Much like its Syrian ally, Iran becomes more and more of a global pariah every day. Outside of Venezuela, it has hardly any true allies. The Islamic Republic clearly views Latin America as a region that can provide an economic lifeline amid global sanctions and also enhance its perceived diplomatic legitimacy. If the radical, anti-American regimes in Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua want to help the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, that’s one thing. But no respectable Latin American democracy should join them.